When I was little, my two younger sisters and I lived upstairs of my Yia Yia, Papoole, and Aunt Lucy. Every morning I would go downstairs and my Yia Yia would take my hands in hers and sing in Greek to me, as I slowly rocked back and forth to the tempo of the song she crooned. I didn’t know all the words to the song, but I knew they spoke of love. She sang the same song to my sisters, each in turn. Love first thing in the morning is always a good thing for a child.
Another every-morning event was the pack of Juicy Fruit gum Papoole brought back from the store. Every morning he went to Frank’s, a little neighborhood grocery about a block away. Whatever else he brought back, there was always a pack of gum for me and my sisters, and always Juicy Fruit. I can still see the bright yellow package with the five sticks of gum. A little sugar every morning, while not such a good thing for our teeth, was still an affirmation that we were loved and cared for.
What I most looked forward to on those mornings, however, was seeing my Aunt Lucy. She was the youngest of my mother’s five sisters, and as the only one unmarried, still lived with my grandparents. She supported them with her job as a flight attendant for a major airline. At the time, traveling by air was not something everyone could afford to do and flying all over the country as a flight attendant was considered pretty glamorous. You had to be beautiful, which my Aunt Lucy was, and smart, and personable.
Aunt Lucy wasn’t always downstairs in the mornings because she would fly for a couple of days and then be home for a couple of days. When she was home, you could always count on her being at the kitchen table in the morning while Yia Yia made her soft-boiled eggs and toast. Always soft-boiled eggs and toast! Aunt Lucy didn’t sit on her chair like a normal person—she perched on it, like a bird; a pretty, talkative bird. Her knees were at chest level, while her feet rested flat against the seat of the kitchen chair, tucked into her oversized flannel nightgown. This was a habit she learned when she was a child, before central heating, to keep warm. My mom—her sister—sat the same way.
A word about the nightgown: Every female in the family had several because they were the only Christmas present the females in our family ever got from Yia Yia, who made them herself, after shopping for the least expensive flannel she could find. This meant that one year you might receive a nightgown with pretty yellow flowers, but you were just as likely to receive one with a cowboy-and-Indian pattern. And they were huge! Yia Yia was ahead of the times with her ‘one size fits all’ concept. My mom used to say that you could hold a wedding in one of her nightgowns. We prized them, especially after we lost Yia Yia; wore them until there were holes in them, until the flannel wore so thin that you could see right through it. I guess the nightgowns were Yia Yia’s love at night.
Anyway, seeing my Aunt Lucy was always something I eagerly anticipated. She had long, lovely red nails, the color of blood, and matching lipstick. And long, wavy, thick black hair. She looked so sophisticated in her uniform. Even her nylons hanging over the shower rod in the bathroom looked sophisticated to me. Sometimes she met famous people on the airplane, and once she brought me a picture of a television star.
There were a bunch of us cousins and Aunt Lucy was everybody’s godmother. In those days of large families and fathers who often worked two jobs, parents didn’t have time to worry about how much individual attention their children received. As a family that had grown up poor, they thought they were doing pretty well feeding their children three meals every day—and they were right. But some children need more, and I was one of those children.
I was an introvert in a family of extroverts and kept to myself somewhat. I was smart, and Aunt Lucy liked that. She made me feel special because I was smart. And while I doubt she remembers this—she was, after all, making a dozen or more of my cousins feel special too—she taught me to read when I was four, taught me how to use a ruler and a dictionary, and how to sew a basic stitch. She gave me my first book, ‘When We Were Very Young,’ by A. A. Milne, and opened up the world of reading for me. Reading has been my avocation ever since. In my culture, women often hid their strength, boys were princes, and children were seldom praised. Aunt Lucy prized me for my intellectual ability and encouraged it, and this meant everything to me.
I still have that first book Aunt Lucy gave me, still take it out and read it. The lilting cadence of ‘James, James, Morrison, Morrison, Weatherby George Dupree….’ attracts me still. Even as a five-year-old I understood and took great pleasure in the frustrated child Mary Jane, ‘What is the matter with Mary Jane? She’s perfectly fine and hasn’t a pain, and it’s lovely rice pudding for dinner again!’ I still love her! These wonderful poems were the beginning of my fascination with words and how they were used to communicate.
In my mind’s eye, I can see her yet, perched on that kitchen chair painting her nails. I can hear her calling me. Every child should have an Aunt Lucy. She brought color to my young world and was a treasure most valuable. An extra person to love and believe in you never hurts. Thank you, Aunt Lucy. I loved you then and love you still.